By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 1, 2007
GDANSK, Poland -- Almost two decades have passed since dictatorship gave way to democracy in Poland, but after years of burying memories and avoiding the subject, this country is finally grappling with its communist past.
On March 15, a controversial law went into effect requiring an estimated 700,000 civil servants, teachers and journalists to sign an oath declaring whether they collaborated with the communist secret police before the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989. Anyone caught lying, or who refuses to sign, is to be fired.
In January, the new archbishop of Warsaw quit after admitting he had been an informer. Since then, dozens of priests in this devout Catholic nation have likewise been outed as collaborators, shaking public faith in an institution that was long seen as the only reliable refuge from totalitarian rule.
Meanwhile, prosecutors are expected this spring to put on trial an 83-year-old man whose unsmiling visage and dark eyeglasses still symbolize the country's tribulations under communism. Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, Poland's former military ruler, faces charges that he illegally declared martial law in 1981 to suppress the Solidarity labor movement that arose in Gdansk's shipyards.
The accusations and recriminations about who did what during the communist era have split Polish society. Proponents of the current purges say that they are long overdue and complain that ex-communists unfairly profited during the country's transition to capitalism. Critics, including many former foes of the communists, describe the campaign as a modern-day Red Scare that is driven more by political machinations than an honest desire to hold people accountable.
Few people have gone unscathed, including Lech Walesa, the Gdansk electrician who led Solidarity and won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1983 for confronting the communists. Walesa has had to go to court twice to clear himself of allegations that he served as an informer.
"Some people will never believe that I managed to accomplish as much as I did without the help of the secret police," Walesa, 63, said in an interview in his office in Gdansk, where he has led a pro-democracy foundation since he served as Poland's president from 1990 to 1995.
Walesa resisted opening Poland's communist-era intelligence archives during his presidency, saying the new republic was too fragile to endure a direct reckoning with its past. Today, however, he supports opening them and said the purges are painful but necessary.
"Only cowards and those who didn't fight didn't have any files," he said. "But we need to get it over with as quickly as possible and do it once and for all. We need to make this issue disappear forever."
Unlike in some of its revolution-minded neighbors in Eastern Europe, Poland's transition from communism to multiparty democracy was a carefully negotiated one.
In February 1989, the country's communist rulers opened talks with a delegation of Solidarity leaders and other activists in Warsaw. After two months, they reached an agreement that led to the first partially free elections in the Soviet bloc. Although the communists soon lost their grip on power, for the most part they avoided prosecution; many, in fact, joined new political parties and restyled themselves as democrats.
Some former Solidarity activists and other communist foes seethed at what they saw as a lack of accountability. After years of operating on the political fringe, they swept into power in late 2005, led by identical twins Jaroslaw and Lech Kaczynski.
The Kaczynskis -- Lech is president, while Jaroslaw serves as prime minister -- have called for a "moral renewal" in Poland. "The problem of confronting the communist past in Poland was always addressed in a weak and inefficient way," said Ludwik Dorn, a deputy prime minister and a close ally of the Kaczynski brothers. "If problems are left unresolved, it's quite normal for them to resurface."
In an interview, Dorn said the new government had already had a cleansing effect: About 1,200 local police officers who had worked for the communists have resigned in the past 18 months.
The Kaczynski government is also targeting the country's military intelligence agencies, he said, prompted in part by Polish voters who came of age after 1989 and are demanding to know why the purges didn't happen earlier.
"They are the judges," Dorn said. "They were 4-year-olds during martial law, and they're asking their fathers and grandfathers: 'Who are you? Who were you?' "
The backbone of the de-communization campaign is the new law that requires civil servants, journalists and academics to declare whether they ever collaborated.
Critics said the law could be easily abused. Jacek Zakowski, a television commentator and columnist for Polityka magazine, said the statute was poorly worded, defining a collaborator as anyone who was in "a position of trust" with the communist authorities.
"I was in the underground in the 1980s, but even I don't know if I could be labeled a 'person of trust' or not," he said. "This is a way to blackmail people, because anybody who says, 'No, I did not collaborate,' could be in trouble."
Jacek Kucharczyk, deputy director of the Institute of Public Affairs in Warsaw, said the vetting law is likely to be overturned or modified by the courts. Regardless of its legality, he said, the measure reflects a broader social divide over the 1989 revolution.
"You have a coalition of people who disliked the new division of authority and power that evolved in Poland," he said. "There are people who genuinely think it was a moral scandal and that it should be rectified in some way. But there are also those who see this as a convenient way to remove the older generation and to take their place."
Millions of pages of security archives have been placed in the custody of the Institute of National Remembrance, an agency with authority to prosecute crimes committed against Poles during the years of Nazi and communist rule.
Under the new anti-communist vetting law, the institute will be required to publish a comprehensive list of collaborators this year. Some researchers at the institute questioned how reliable it would be.
"A lot of people just consider it as black or white -- either you were a collaborator or you were not," said Antoni Dudek, a historian at the institute. "But a lot of times, when you look at the files, it's much more complicated."
Dudek estimated that as many as 1 million Poles could have served as informers during the communist era. But only about 100,000 people had case files that clearly identified them as collaborators, he said.
The remainder, he said, must be reconstructed from a variety of documents that often contain fleeting references to individuals or people operating under aliases. Sometimes, people were falsely identified as informers by intelligence agents trying to impress their superiors.
In disputed cases, people tagged as collaborators can appeal to a special commission to ask that their names be cleared. But it can take years for cases to be heard.
Meanwhile, prosecutors from the Institute of National Remembrance are preparing to try Jaruzelski. After beating similar legal action in the '90s, he was indicted again in March 2006 on charges of "communist crimes," stemming from his decision to declare martial law. Dozens of people were killed in clashes that resulted in 1981, and thousands of underground activists were arrested.
Jaruzelski has maintained his innocence and portrays himself as a Polish patriot, arguing that he did what was necessary to stabilize the country and prevent an invasion by Soviet troops. The elderly general spends his days in the institute's reading rooms combing through historical archives to gather evidence for his defense.
Although Jaruzelski was a reviled figure during his rule, surveys show that many Poles today view him more sympathetically.
Mieczyslaw Rakowski, one of Poland's last communist prime ministers and a former deputy to Jaruzelski, said there was no doubt that the Soviets would have intervened in 1981. He said the general avoided a bloodbath by declaring martial law and also by agreeing to negotiate with Solidarity in 1989.
"My generation saw Budapest on fire in 1956," he said, referring to the Soviet suppression of a rebellion in Hungary. "I saw the Prague Spring uprising and how [Czechoslovak leader Alexander] Dubcek and his people were taken on a plane to Moscow with their heads in a sack. I also witnessed the next Russian invasion, of Afghanistan, in 1979. Why do you think it would have been any different for us?"
Among the general's defenders today is his old foe Walesa. "He believed, and the communists believed, that there was no other choice, that the Russians had directed missiles at every Polish city," Walesa said. "I do not punish people for faith, and they believed in that. I'm leaving the judgments to God."